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Subway vs LRT: You Do the Math on Scarborough Transit

Council will yet again debate whether it's light rail or a subway for Scarborough. We've got some interactive charts, to help you figure out how much each one costs.

Subways are once again on city council’s agenda, part of the ongoing, never-ending debate about the future of Scarborough transit. The City and the province already have a signed agreement to build a seven-stop light rail route; that plan would be fully paid for by Queen’s Park. This past summer, however, TTC Chair Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence) and councillor Glenn de Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre)—with some enthusiastic cheerleading from mayor Rob Ford—spearheaded a push to reopen that agreement and build a three-stop subway instead.

The problem: that subway will cost approximately $1.5 billion more than the LRT, and though the federal government recently announced it would kick in $660 million of that money, city council must find the rest. This will mean significant property tax increases—something Rob Ford himself rejects (even though he wants the subway that property tax increase would purchase).

But in fact, the subway may be a lot more than $1.5 billion extra. That’s a baseline projection, assuming that interest rates stay low and there aren’t any cost overruns. If interest rates go up, or the project goes over budget, the impact on the City’s budget could be much greater.

Here is how the numbers stack up…

Construction costs
How much it will take just to build the routes, before we pay for drivers, maintenance, and day-to-day operations:

  Total Cost Cost to Toronto Length (km) Cost/km Annual ridership Cost per rider Rush hour ridership Ppl in walking distance Additional development charges
Subway 9,500 24,000
LRT $0 8,000 47,000 $0

Cost Overruns and Operating Costs
Here is your chance to really test the math. Using the drop-down menus in the chart here, you can adjust the interest rate if you think borrowing costs might go up, or you can factor in a project overrun if you’re worried about construction costs. You can also add in the operating costs: the drivers and maintenance and day-to-day management that haven’t yet been accounted for. Each time you change an assumption, our calculator will give you new numbers—you can see those changes in the project totals up above.

Total over 30 years [?] Annual cost Property tax increase [?] Annual average property tax increase [?]
Borrowing Cost [?]
Cost overruns [?]
SUBWAY operating cost [?]
N/A $0 N/A $0
LRT operating cost [?]

N/A $0 0% $0

Property Taxes
Toronto’s top civil servant is recommending a 1.6% property tax increase over the next three years; at that rate it would take 30 years to pay for the subway—and that’s just for construction costs. Add in any overruns or interest rate increases, and also operating costs (which we pay only if we build a subway, since the province has agreed to pick up the operating costs for an LRT) and property taxes would need to go up more. Based on the choices you made above, here is the property tax impact:

Total Annual Total property tax increase Annual average property tax increase [?]
Property taxes needed

Debt Levels
How would a subway affect our credit rating? In order to stay in good standing the City has established a debt ceiling of 15%, which means that the City’s debt servicing cost in any given year should never amount to more than 15% of its property tax revenue in that same year. Here is how the debt ratio would be affected by the Scarborough subway:

  2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022
Without subway
With subway

What Could We Build Instead?
Finally, there’s the question of opportunity cost: what we could build instead of a subway for the same amount of money? Here are some other ways we could spend the funds. The total at the very bottom shows the amount the subway would cost, based on all the choices you made above. Click on the alternative projects you’re interested in to see how much you could accomplish with the subway money if you put it to other uses.

Keep in mind: if we skipped the subway all of these alternative projects could be in addition to the LRT, since that would be fully funded by the province.

Alternative Project How Much It Would Cost
Amount you have to spend:

If you have any questions on how to use the calculator or how the numbers work, feel free to leave them in the comments and we’ll answer as soon as we can.


How Much Would a Scarborough Subway Really Cost?

Our thanks to Senning Luk and Dmitry Beniaminov for help with the table coding.

CORRECTION: 11:26 AM We originally referred to the City’s debt when writing about the impact on credit ratings when we meant the annual debt servicing cost.